Diplomats in Training: Frostburg State University Students Master Diplomacy in D.C.

Aug 21, 2017 11:00 AM

By Charles Schelle

Across the street from the Washington Monument, Frostburg State University student CJ Barnett struck up a conversation with anyone he could see in the sunlit grand hall of the Organization of American States’ main building.

The mammoth room quickly became an intimate affair as Barnett, from Elkton, Md., worked to get to know other students so he could persuade them to take his side in the discussions to come. To the strangers he met, Barnett wasn’t representing FSU. He was representing the nation of Colombia, leading the delegation in this real-world diplomatic exercise, the 2017 Washington Model Organization of American States (OAS) General Assembly for Universities.

“Talking to the people is honestly my favorite part,” the political science major said. “I’ve enjoyed every second of meeting with people from all different backgrounds, all different cultures.”

Not every student is so at ease in large social settings, but even if they have the gift of gab, they had better be prepared to speak about policy, too.

“It was a stressful nightmare,” political science major Cameron Shanton said, smiling as he recalled his first year at the Model OAS. “Slowly, you get used to it. It’s like being thrown into a massive social situation. Anyone would be uncomfortable. You have to speak in front of everyone and convince them of your viewpoint,” said the Thurmont, Md., resident.

Those nightmares quickly turn into a dream week for students. Public speaking is just one of the lessons learned during the weeklong simulation, promoting democracy through diplomacy. It’s the hallmark experience of the FSU Political Science 435 course, Model Organization of American States.

“You do everything a diplomat would do,” said A’Lexus Blue, who earned her political science degree in May. “That’s meeting with other members, talking about bilateral agreements, multilateral agreements.” The Accokeek, Md., resident said time was also required to discuss  United Nations documents and merge them.

The OAS, headquartered in the nation’s capital, is the world’s longest-running regional political union, promoting democracy and defending human rights among member nations in the Western Hemisphere. The event is coordinated with the Institute for Diplomatic Dialogue in the Americas and provides a simulated environment for college students to conduct diplomatic negotiations, as well as handle a surprise crisis scenario announced during opening day.

Barnett, Blue and Shanton were joined by students Jessica Johnson Clay of Cockeysville, Md.; Omar Taylor of Salisbury, Md., who also graduated in May; and Will Woodcock of Columbia, Md.

A Mental and Social Exercise

Being book smart will serve students well at the Washington Model OAS General Assembly. That knowledge has to be expressed in a friendly and strategic way at a dais or in one-on-one chats called unmoderated caucuses. The students had their own topics of concentration in committees that deal with democratization, poverty, human rights or drugs.

Political Science Professor Dr. Joan Serafin Andorfer has been the president of the Institute for Diplomatic Dialogue in the Americas since 2000, and serves as a co-organizer of the Model OAS. FSU has sent students to the Model OAS for more than 30 years. Andorfer has witnessed students blossom at the Model OAS, realizing their dreams by solving problems on their own.

“Our students see that they have talents that they didn’t realize they had, or talents they want to acquire,” Andorfer said. “They see there is a place in the world for them to make a difference. I try to teach that in the classroom, but until they actually experience it, they really don’t see how it can be so valuable.”

Before students arrive in OAS, they spend the semester learning about the history of the country they represent, researching modern-day policies of the country, preparing draft resolutions and learning how to conduct themselves in the meetings. It all can feel abstract until a student is faced with a microphone while surrounded by hundreds of peers, having to adjust strategy on the fly.

“Studying for Colombia and the various policies isn’t the hard part,” Barnett said. “The hard part is understanding how every single other state within the OAS is going to respond.”

“If you really have great ideas, you have to be able to communicate them in a language everybody can understand,” Andorfer said. “When they get here, they realize a misplaced comma can be diabolical to what they’re trying to achieve.”

A Global Perspective

FSU students in the class are seeing already how the course and trip will help them during their next steps.

Woodcock wants to attend law school and work for a nonprofit dedicated to protecting animals. He anticipates the Model OAS experience will help him bridge divides.

“It gives you a broader range of knowledge of where people come from, what they expect and what’s expected of them,” Woodcock said. “Hopefully, that will help me interact with people from different cultures.”

Taylor, a law and society major concentrating in criminal justice, found it reassuring that students from the real Colombia indicated that he was on the right track with his resolution for judicial reform on drug use by expanding rehabilitation. He’s feeling optimistic, as he wants to go into a career involving international politics.

“It helps that I have some expertise in diplomacy,” Taylor said.

In the end, FSU as Colombia’s resolution passed 18-9.

(To view a video of this experience, visit bit.ly/ModelOAS.)

The Model OAS experience is supported through Opportunity Grants, which are made possible through gifts to the FSU Foundation’s Annual Fund. To support experiences like this one, visit www.frostburg.edu/foundation/ways-to-give or call 301-687-4161.

Situated in the mountains of Allegany County, Frostburg State University is one of the 12 institutions of the University System of Maryland. FSU is a comprehensive, residential regional university and serves as an educational and cultural center for Western Maryland. For more information, visit www.frostburg.edu or facebook.com/frostburgstateuniversity. Follow FSU on Twitter @frostburgstate.